If you want to look modern, forget these style rules

If one of your style goals is to look modern and current, some of the old rules and beliefs learned earlier in life may be keeping you stuck. Style rules to ditch over 50, and some tools you can use instead…

Many women in my age demographic grew up with a whole litany of seemingly arbitrary style rules and conventions. Some of the style rules I was taught were:

  • only wear what makes you look slimmer (this was #1 )
  • no white after Labor Day (we all laugh at this one now, but my mother took it SERIOUSLY)
  • match your shoes and bag
  • shoes should match pants color or be darker
  • patent leather, velvet, lace are for dressy occasions only
  • your jacket should always be longer than your top, coat longer than dress or skirt
  • bright colors are garish
  • no dangly earrings in daytime
  • never wear black + blue/navy, or black + brown, or navy + brown, etc.

and the most irritating of them,

  • women over 50 shouldn’t wear ______ (fill in blank with whatever arbitrary items the 20-something author has declared off-limits to us)

Even if these sound like relics of ancient times, 😉 we may be following old style rules without even being aware of it, which can lead to looking and feeling stuck or stale.

When I say “modern,” I’m not talking about chasing trends. It’s more about looking current, engaged, and aware of general style directions. Modern style benefits from periodically evaluating and (if necessary) updating here and there. Keep an open mind. I find that it sometimes takes my eye a while to adjust to major style shifts, so take an incremental approach.

What feels “modern” to me now:

  • simple & unfussy. Should look & be comfortable (though not sloppy)
  • more relaxed silhouettes. Not baggy (though baggy is “trendy”), but neither snug head-to-toe
  • mixing levels of formality or refinement in an outfit (e.g. sneakers with trousers or a skirt)
  • mixing textures in an outfit

Not playing by the rules, what now?

When it comes to developing and evolving personal style over 50, I find certain guidelines can be helpful. But personal style is personal, which is why “tools, not rules” has become my mantra.

But I always want to feel like myself in what I’m wearing, so here are some of the tools I’ve found most helpful to stay consistent and keep my wardrobe cohesive:

How to focus your style with this 3-word formula

Understanding your Style Personality, and how it can help you build a cohesive wardrobe

The 3-color formula for looking put-together

Find more style tips & outfit ideas at The Style Hub

And of course, working from my color palette means that the colors in my wardrobe are in harmony. I can wear what I have in multiple combinations, mix older and newer items, and create outfit variety with fewer pieces.

Susan B. wears a yellow cashmere hoodie, cream blazer, jeans and yellow buckle loafers.

I don’t seem to be able to link directly to the hoodie on Me + Em, but if you go HERE and search for “hoodie” you’ll see lots more colors. Jacket & jeans from prior seasons, loafers a few years old. Here’s a pre-owned pair in white, and quite a few on Poshmark. A few budget-friendlier cashmere hoodie options:

For many of us, years of restrictive style rules have led to a “don’t tell me what to wear!!!” reaction. I get that, I really do. But I’ve also found that having unlimited choices can lead to decision fatigue, and/or a closet full of “what was I thinking?” shopping mistakes.

Having a coherent personal style (and building a cohesive wardrobe around it) requires making choices and being discriminating. For some women, this is an intuitive process that develops over time. For others having a framework and being able to quantify why something works or doesn’t is key. Or we may incorporate varying degrees of both intuitive and quantitative input. We all process information differently. What “clicks” for one person may be lost on another.

Sharing what I’ve found helpful

While I’m a visual learner, I also have a strong analytical side. I can look at something and know whether it works for me or not. But I also want to know why. Being able to quantify something like a color combination or a jacket length saves me hours of “faffing” (as my British friends say).

Knowing my best colors and understanding my Style Personality and physical “architecture” have helped me build a cohesive wardrobe that makes getting dressed (in a way that feels like “me”) easier. When I share information about color or style formulas, it’s because I’ve found these tools helpful. And I believe that anyone reading can use or modify these tools to suit themselves.

Finding and honing your personal style formula (or formulas) should feel freeing, not constraining. Freeing in that you can let go of trying to dress like someone you’re not. You can flip past colors and trends that don’t suit you and feel more confident incorporating those that do.

BUT I’m absolutely NOT trying to tell anyone what to wear, or limit your choices. If something I’ve suggested doesn’t interest or work for you, that’s fine too. It would be a boring world if we all liked the same things.

(For those who have been asking about body shapes and silhouettes, I’ll be addressing that in a separate post.)

What style rules have you discarded, and what tools have you found helpful instead?

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  1. I still remember shopping for clothes with my mother and her advice. Most of it holds true today. When trying on pants check to see how they fit/feel when sitting down. Are the pants comfortable when sitting, do they bind at the knees, can you bend over, do the pockets stick out? Rules for pant length seem to have disappeared. When shopping for a coat or blazer raise your arms as you would when driving a car – do the sleeves restrict movement?
    One rule I seldom follow completely has to do with buttoning a cardigan or blazer. For years I always made sure that I could button or zip a sweater or jacket even if I seldom fastened it when I wore it. But so often these pieces are worn more as an accessory and while they still need to fit properly the ability to button them is no longer necessary. I think of how Michele Obama often wore open cardigans with a leather belt over them.

    1. Hi Maire, that’s so true about sitting and moving when trying on clothes! And about not having to completely button cardigans or blazers.

      1. The buttoning up rule is one I’m happy to have seen disappear. I have found—repeatedly— that buying a jacket or cardigan big enough to button leaves me swimming in it, and it looks ill-fitted and awful.

    2. Maire, you’ve just summarized a lot of the advice I give to the clients at Dress for Success (where I volunteer). Many of our clients have never worn business clothes before, & are unsure how they should fit. For pants or pencil skirts, I advise them to make sure they can sit comfortably. For jackets, I ask them to cross their arms in front, to see if the back is too tight. And I tell them “the jacket doesn’t have to button, but it should look like it could!” And of course, no gapping at the bust of a button front blouse.

      1. Jill – My daughter volunteered every Saturday at a Dress for Success while doing a post-grad internship in the city. It was an eye-opening experience for her. She knew the basic rules and assumed everyone else did. But it was the first time she realized how important it was to find the proper FIT – especially when you are dressing for an interview or job. It’s one thing to slouch off to college classes in worn jeans and Uggs and another when you are sitting across the desk from a possible employer.

  2. I saw you in the EM+ME cropped hoodie and blazer on IG yesterday and I LOVE this look. Do you think think structured blazers like what you’re wearing will continue to be popular this spring/summer?

    1. Thanks so much! I’m still seeing LOTS of blazers in the new arrivals, though longer blazers seem to be the dominant trend.

  3. I adore this outfit on you…and it is a look that I love for me. Fun, sporty, and chic! I’m always drawn to hoodies; not because I ever put the hood up, but because I like the look of a hood at my neckline.

    I appreciate how you offer advice, but never dictate it. Everything that you offer is simply for your readers’ consideration. I always look forward to your posts!

  4. Many of the old rules were in my head and I have discarded them all. It took some effort, I can tell you. The coat being shorter than my skirt is still one that stays in my head. I don’t like the look of 20 cm skirt peeping from under my coat. The visual lines are distorted. As I don’t have the money to buy even more coats, I will have to get used to it haha.
    I have been given a lot of advice on style but somehow it doesn’t translate into being able to put it to work. Well, some of it, but I could do a hell of a lot better. I just don’t see it.

    1. I feel the same way, Greetje: I read and read about style, I love clothing, but even with Susan’s excellent blog, style eludes me! I never look terrible, I generally look at least ok or put-together, but I don’t often manage to add that bit of je ne sais quoi. I think if I spent more time in my closet regularly adding/subtracting, trying various combos, I might get there, but I am always behind/short of time and perhaps don’t have motivation, except for a special occasion ;-{ I think I need to practice more, but don’t!

      1. Here are a couple tips that help me feel put together. I have my “signature” jewelry that I wear every day except for formal occasions. It’s an adjustable chain gold pendant necklace, several gold bracelets and pearl or diamond studs. Even though it’s not the trend, I always match my shoes, belt and bag (either cognac or black). If the weather allows I add a third piece – sweater blazer, jean or utility jacket, or cardigan. Then no matter what I wear, like a striped tee and jeans, it looks put together. Makes morning choices so much easier!

  5. Such a smart post! I’ll be thinking about this in the coming weeks as I clean out closets and rethink my own style.

    I’ll add that I just returned from a 3.5 week holiday in Australia and New Zealand on land excursions and a luxe cruise. I have NEVER seen so much dressing down in any of these venues as I did this time. Boy, are people confused about what to wear. In response they are wearing athletic and super-casual wear in ways and places that IMHO don’t work for them. It seems to be a time of transition. I wonder what will come next. Will we stay super-casual or will we eventually start to care about our clothes again?

      1. One difficulty I have is fitting in exercise, a 2nd shower and getting into street clothes in a daily routine…
        I think for at least some of us, dressing for exercise that may not be at the beginning or end of the day leads to sporty clothing for errands and grocery shopping, etc! It is no longer required that we dress better for running errands, and it definitely takes more organization to plan one’s day to look better when out and about IF exercise away from home is part of the plan…

  6. Thanks, as always, Susan for the “tools, not rules” recap! The #1 tool I’ve implemented has been wearing MY best colors and not veering from that palette. It has made my wardrobe work for me in the easiest way…everything “plays well” with others. I just gifted this experience to my friend, and she’s newly energized! I love that you’re now providing this service to others – it’s life changing, really!!

  7. Loved this post! I haven’t been colored matched but I am trying to do it basically on my own love your outfit and the blazer is awesome!

  8. This post is so true. I have heard all those rules. My mother always said not to wear black when you are over 50 because you will look like an old widow. I do not follow that. Thank you for promoting a “wear what looks good” mentality.

  9. Oh, the rules are a walk down memory lane. Matching colors is the one that I found the hardest to shake. A comment above reminded me of a rule that it was not-quite-nice for girls to wear black. Especially black in the evening. I knew almost no one in college who wore black. Change is good.
    I also love that gorgeous yellow hoodie outfit.

  10. I’m 76 years old and i don’t remember hearing any of these style rules except the one about when not to wear white. I have always worn what I felt like wearing and what felt appropriate to me at the time and place. I lived in Hawaii for awhile and often wore muumuus that I would not wear in Arizona.

  11. Hello. I love your blog, and I have so enjoyed watching your color journey over the years. I wonder if at some point you could address what I call the “Summer’s Lament.” Years ago, I was classified as a Summer, and I agree. Coming up with a Core color is impossible. I default to black, a not true summer grey and a not true summer navy. I do my best to find the right colors in tops (and so appreciate when you point them out), but what to do about bottoms ( beyond denim).
    My mother, who passed away a few years ago at age 93, was the most well-dressed woman I knew. Quality over quantity. She mostly purchased her clothes in a small shop with an on-site seamstress. Even when her body became frail, her clothing fit beautifully and she still looked modern. I miss shopping with her.

    1. I’m a Summer, and I like Navy, Gray and the Summer Cocoa brown for pants and skirts. With these core neutrals, you have many options to mix and match. I was purchasing black pants for a time, but it limits the options you have to mix and match and as Susan has pointed out, it is a more harsh contrast than the softer navy, grays and

  12. You had me at the blazer and turtleneck. A blazer is a workhorse in my closet. No matter what I wear a blazer or jean jacket always elevates the look. The only rule I grew up with is: don’t wear white shoes after Labor Day. My rule for myself is when getting dressed I want to look as put together as possible with the least amount of effort. Trends and rules are exhausting. My coworker has dressed in the same style for years, very “Ralph Lauren”. Other than a few tweaks her style stays the same. Sounds boring? It isn’t, she knows herself and always looks put together and current.

  13. I appreciate the “intuitive vs. quantitative” nod — I’m someone who actually does better with data and rules that I don’t veer from. Therefore, the “tools not rules” idea is nice for some, but not me. Give me those rules, LOL.

    So, having said that, a few rules I stick to as an apple-shaped Winter are wearing only silver or pearl jewelry, forgoing crossbody or shoulder bags in favor of clutches or totes, never EVER wearing a top that’s shorter than the top of my thighs, and preferring columns of color that complement my height (5’9″). I learned these things decades ago, yet I still have to remind myself all the time. Seeing photos of myself when I’ve forgotten jerks me back to reality, LOL.

    1. I agree honoring my body type is helpful. When I don’t things don’t look quite right. I’m a V shape boarding on a rectangle. Buying tops and sweaters these past few years has been a challenge. They’re cropped, boxy, drop shoulders, tunic or oversized. So many sweaters out now make me look like a line backer. I look best in Goldie Lock clothes, clothes right in the middle. I have enjoyed wider leg shapes as they balance my proportions. Also at 5’4 oversized clothes can be overwhelming.

  14. I call it the “mom voice.” It still nags at me. One of her major outrages was “her slip is showing.” (Remember slips?) This one still haunts me when I try to wear a shorter jacket over a longer top.

  15. I remember those “rules” but have to say I still struggle with putting navy and black together.
    My mother had another rule when I was a child; no black shoes as they looked “common”, so I had to have brown shoes!

  16. Maybe it’s just me, but white shoes should be worn only by brides on their wedding day. No white shoes in any season for the rest of us ladies of a certain age is my rule.

    White shoes look cheap, regardless of the material, IMO. Cream and other light colors look great with the right outfit, as Susan shows us with her smashing combinations!

    1. So funny that you say this about white shoes. I’ve always thought the same thing since I was very young, with the exception of white GoGo boots in the 60s. I also don’t even wear white sneakers, which are very current. I was a nurse for 50 years and still associate it with a “nursey” look. Old habits are hard to break. If I wear light colored shoes, I like you, wear nude, beige or a caramel/tan range. I have size 10 feet, so white tennies on me is not flattering.

  17. I splurged on that Annie Bing sweatshirt last summer while visiting Carmel, CA. It’s definitely a fun piece that gives a bit of edge to my winter palette wardrobe. Sometimes adding one unique piece gives my wardrobe a fresh take. Yes it is a splurge for a sweatshirt. But I’m worth it.

  18. Thank you for helping me to be modern (and not too trendy), Susan. I appreciate your response to my questions. I asked you if the Vince Benita square toe clog was comfortable and you told me it was. I ordered it and my 70 year old feet love them! I just splurged last month for the Cinq a Sept ruched sleeve blazer. I got it in black and feel so chic wearing it. Another thank you is for cotton sweaters. I live in southwest Florida so even our cotton sweater season is short. I look forward to your posts every day.

  19. I have a camel color cashmere hoodie like this from Quince. It is so well made, soft, warm and luxurious. Great layering piece too. The prices from Quince are exceptional and I appreciate that in addition to their transparency.
    I am beginning to delete items from my closet that seem “forced” and not me. I still dress appropriately for events, for dinners out, for my office, and everything else from the gym to going shopping at the mall. I don’t care what other people wear so long as I dress for myself. I am a 3 piece gal and prefer classic and simple with a little something to stave off boredom. I am a shoe person and love booties and sneakers and wear heels only when forced to now.
    Susan thank you for the many tips and ideas that helped me focus in to what makes me feel “me” in my clothes.
    BTW, I just returned from Paris, and a France/Germany Christmas market road trip and although people were bundled up their style did not suffer. My observation is that locals, at least in Paris and the rest of France, still dress “appropriately.”

  20. Absolutely a proponent of wearing what I like and what is comfortable. One of the great joys of aging is knowing what works for oneself and caring less about what others think about what you do and what you wear. I’m a big proponent of ‘style, not fashion’. Love that hoodie and those shoes on you – would that they were in my budget!